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Pharma survey: COVID-19 foreshadows a change in how business is done

Pharmas worry about employee stress, but remote work has upsides that could transform the workplace

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As pharmas grapple with how to return to work, employees are being given the upper hand in deciding when and how to do so. The result could preface a transformation to a semi-virtual office structure, allowing for a wider talent pool and less of a power base in headquarter operations.

BioCentury’s survey of the member pharmas in the COVID R&D Alliance found optimism among R&D leaders for how they will continue to produce results during the pandemic, tempered by concern for employee welfare given the strains of what is turning into a round-the-clock work environment.

The 13 respondents included nine large-cap pharmas and three mid-cap biotechs, headquartered in the U.S., Europe and Japan. One pharma responded separately for locations in the U.S. and Europe.

Instead of top-down directives on returning employees to the workplace, decisions are being handled locally by individual managers or leaders at each facility. While some activities -- such as lab work -- are prioritized over others, ensuring employees are comfortable with their return to work is paramount.

The all-remote workplace has upsides -- everyone is in the Room Where It Happens.

R&D heads are acutely aware of the long hours, lack of boundaries and stress of childcare that come with the continual work-from-home environment. Flexibility and choice are the principal relievers of that tension, giving employees more ability to fit their work into their lives rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, the all-remote workplace has upsides -- everyone is in the Room Where It Happens. Belonging to headquarters no longer confers an advantage, and there’s greater cross-site connectivity.

The virtual workplace also enables expansion of the talent pool, since there is no need to take into account commuting distance in hiring. If the home versus office balance shifts long-term, that could benefit talented employees outside of the big hubs, as well as single parents or those who have constraints on their office hours.

And while almost none have plans to increase travel in the next half or even longer, they have managed to keep BD on track, and many have established new connections and BD relationships via virtual meetings.

Moreover, having been forced to rethink practices and adapt, several of the R&D heads see this period as an opportunity for innovation in how work gets done.

Productivity meter

R&D heads from almost all the top pharma companies created the COVID R&D Alliance to expedite the creation of countermeasures for COVID-19 (see “Pharmas Align Behind Crowdsourcing Solution”).

BioCentury surveyed the group about productivity, best practices for returning to the workplace, and their policies on travel and conference attendance in the coming 12 months.

The productivity scorecard is fairly robust given the way COVID-19 upended operations with little chance to prepare: half the R&D heads said that overall, productivity had remained as good as before the pandemic, the remainder said it had decreased.

Business development has been largely unscathed, with one respondent stating the environment has been more productive for deals than before, and none reporting a negative impact.

Regulatory affairs and payer negotiations remain mostly on track, with the vast majority reporting productivity for each remained unaffected or improved (89% and 75%, respectively; see “Productivity Scorecard”).

But lab-based work, clinical trials and sales have taken a hit, with only one quarter to one third of the pharmas managing to keep productivity steady.

Most R&D heads said that for roles that can be conducted remotely, productivity is unchanged or even better, as there is no commute and less distraction.

Functions such as medical science liaisons and lab workers whose activity depends on workplace presence have had productivity “drastically reduced,” said one leader.

“In the case of clinical trial conduct, productivity is severely reduced by the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare system,” they added.

Despite biopharmas receiving exemptions from shelter-in-place orders in many places, lab operations have been kept to mission critical activity in many cases (see “Bay Area Labs Pare Down to Essentials”).

Figure: Productivity scorecard

The most common measure of R&D productivity was hitting milestones, including approvals, regulatory filings, or transition from one phase to another. Other parameters included increased efficiency, such as reduced cycle time, and reduced costs.

Figure: Safety first

Masks are in

Pharmas are leading by example; all respondents said they are using masks as a safety measure for employees who do return to the workplace -- though only two thirds are requiring rather than recommending them.

Alternating days in the office or lab is another widespread approach, required or recommended by all but one responding company. And more than half are employing temperature checks and health questionnaires (see “Safety First”).

Mobile apps for either contact tracing or social distancing are not seeing much uptake by pharmas, though one company said it has active contact tracing protocols in place and is evaluating mobile app options.

Gone are the days when working from home was a privilege. Now companies are at pains to take into account employee preference.

All companies are capping the number of people in a room, mostly between 20-50% of maximum occupancy, ensuring distancing of more than six feet can be maintained. Some companies are using markings on the floors and walls.

Based on write-in comments, the common theme is that local facilities are directing the safety measures, and individual managers or site heads are making the decisions about who can come back to work, with lab personnel top of the list.

But employee buy-in is key. Gone are the days when working from home was a privilege; now companies are at pains to take into account employee preference.

None of the R&D heads mentioned legal considerations on the return to work policies.

Figure: Stress factors

Employee welfare

The productivity is coming at a human cost with increased stress in the workforce, but R&D leaders are attempting multiple steps to dissipate the problem. And there are also upsides; with flexible hours -- a measure all the R&D heads invoked -- staff have more opportunity to control their own time.

Moreover, despite some Zoom fatigue, there’s better “meeting behavior” with improved control of large meetings, plus more connectivity between office and non-office staff, or staff at different locations; those outside of headquarters are less disconnected than before.

Employee time is valuable, meaning executives are taking a hard look at which projects to keep and, importantly, which to put on the back burner.

There is a “ruthless prioritization/deprioritization of programs and initiatives,” said one executive, adding that they are mandating vacation days.

“Most people appear to be working longer hours. Very few are taking vacation days,” said another.

All the R&D heads cited multiple concerns for employees; the long hours mean it’s not clear when the work day starts and ends, and many of the staff have to handle childcare at the same time (see “Stress Factors”).

One company is providing back-up childcare and online fitness classes; another is providing online childcare through virtual classrooms, in addition to mental health training and a resource hub for employees and line managers.

While increasing communication and flexibility are in, postponing deadlines is not; only two pharmas cited use of that tactic.

Most R&D heads are in touch with their direct reports at least several times per week, and two steps below several times per month. Almost half have department meetings once per month or more (see “Staying in Touch”).

Figure: Staying in touch

Home advantage

Executives will almost certainly be spending less time on the road, even after the pandemic is quashed. Most of the R&D leaders cited reduced travel as a benefit of the new environment, and believe there will be a wholesale rethink on the need for travel to meetings that can be conducted virtually equally well.

That echoes comments from other biotech executives who have told BioCentury they plan to reduce in-person board meetings to once or twice per year, and cut traveling for one-off meetings to a minimum.

Travel at pharmas right now is either not allowed or highly discouraged; for critical meetings exceptions are made, though they require higher levels of approval than normal.

Six of the pharmas said their travel policy will remain in place through at least the end of 2020, one is keeping the policy through the end of 1Q21, and others are keeping them indefinitely, subject to review later in the year.

Most have no plans to send a delegation to any of six key conferences in person through June 2021, including the January JPM Healthcare conference (see “Lack of Congress”).

Figure: Lack of congress

Some will send only BD representatives or only R&D presenters.

While the vast majority (83%) said virtual meetings were not as good as in-person meetings, all said they had used them for presenting research and most for maintaining BD relationships.

One executive drew a distinction between meeting types: “Virtual investor conferences are good; virtual medical congresses [are] highly variable, based on the skill and capability of the organizers.”

“Presentations are more accessible, networking is harder,” said another.

Still, three quarters of the group said the virtual meetings have been helpful for establishing new BD relationships -- a factor important for smaller biotechs aiming to break through. Investors and biotech BD executives have told BioCentury that while deal-making is still robust, it is mostly with known partners or contacts already in their networks (see “Virtual Benefits”).

Figure: Virtual benefits

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